Signs point to the learning corporation

July 30, 1999

The virtual university, far from building a much more loosely defined environment for exchanging knowledge, demands a different type of concrete organisation, says John Goddard.

The "virtual university" is a potent vision of the future of higher education. It is seen as a university without walls, an institution which has torn itself free from the geographical confines of the campus and its region, to connect learners, teachers, potential students, alumni, employers, researchers, research funders and research users across the globe in a flexible, ever-changing organisation for knowledge creation and distribution.

For teaching, the vision sees a separation of the development of course content, the assembly of students, the provision of learning and assessment. The university ceases to be an end-to-end supplier and adopts the role of an intermediary, acting on a global stage as collaborator, client or contractor. Research teams cross disciplinary, institutional and national boundaries working closely with users. And administrators provide the information systems to support the teaching and the research networks of the academics.

This vision has captured the imagination of academics, university managers, educational policymakers, human resource managers in the corporate sector, the media industry and entrepreneurs across the world. Numerous actions to move towards the creation of virtual universities are underway in existing institutions or through the creation of new institutions.

While some of the initiatives are on "greenfield", sites the majority are taking place on "brownfield" sites. This raises the key question of how the customs and practice of teaching, learning and administration within the traditional university interact with the requirements of the virtual university. While the traditional notion of the university as a band of scholars coming together in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge may have always been a myth, it imparted to universities a collegiate model of organisation in which the university existed primarily in the heads of the people who constituted it, and in the myriad of locally negotiated practices and interactions. This collegiate model could be in some ways highly flexible and responsive and in others rigid and resistant to change.

In a project, "Space, Place and the Virtual University", part of the ESRC Virtual Society? programme, we have been studying IT projects in universities in North-east England. These have included Newcastle University's introduction of a new finance and human resources management information system, the work of Sunderland University's Learning Development Services unit and Northumbria University's "Excellence in the use of C & IT" programme.

These studies suggest that far from leading to a break-up of the traditional university, the new technologies are requiring a re-institutionalisation of the university as a more corporate kind of organisation where goals, roles, identities, rules and operating procedures are made more explicit. In this sense, the virtual university is a far more "concrete" organisation than the traditional university.

However, the electronic processes are not completely displacing traditional ways of doing things but co-existing in a tense symbiotic relationship. Key actors take on a mediation role between the old and the new, articulating the non-IT drivers for change such as the requirement for efficiency gains arising from declining resource per student; a more diverse student body requiring recruitment (not selection), support and monitoring; more discerning clients with experience of IT supported private services; external pressures for quality assurance and accountability for earmarked funding; increasing global competition, the need for marketing and rapid responses to potential students/research clients; and the need for greater responsiveness to the needs of business and the community in a way that brings together teaching, research and cultural activities.

Taken together these drivers reinforce the need for a more corporate approach in the adoption of information systems. Thus many bottom up attempts to realise the virtual university fade away because they are not mainstreamed and systematised across the institution. In addition, public demands for more responsive universities, particularly from the communities in which they are located, further reinforce the need for more integrated institutions with an enhanced capability for internal knowledge management. A more corporate approach is required to preserve time for traditional activities such as face-to-face tuition, research, teaching and individual scholarship.

We believe that the virtual university as an electronic "sheltered workshop" or "boutique" is a flawed vision. It seems that universities will have to pass through a period of regularisation and creation of rule based procedures before they can enter the sunny uplands of virtuality. The increasing use of the web for electronic commerce, especially the creation of knowledge based market places will present major challenges for universities that have not established their own internal electronic systems. If universities do not respond, vertical markets for students, materials and knowledge products managed by non university "infomediaries" could indeed undermine the traditional or unresponsive university. Paradoxically, localisation could provide some of the capacity to meet these challenges, reducing wasteful local competition, supporting full use of facilities (buildings and IT networks), in effect tying down the local in the global. But for these effects to come about, higher education policy will have to pay more attention to capacity building within the sector and actively managing diversity. Short-term initiatives supporting ad hoc projects are no way to build a network of virtual universities while protecting the best of the traditional universities.

This article is a summary of a presentation at an ESRC Virtual Society? seminar.

John Goddard is pro-vice-chancellor at Newcastle University.

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